July 15, 2024

(Bloomberg) — Kosovo said a local ethnic Serb leader with ties to Belgrade was involved in a shootout with police on Sunday, escalating tensions after the bloodiest clash in the nation in almost two decades.

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Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic meanwhile demanded that NATO troops take “security control” in northern Kosovo, an unlikely prospect for a peacekeeping force that has no mandate for policing.

Two days after a standoff involving some 30 armed Serb assailants left four people dead, including an ethnic Albanian policeman, officials in Serbia and Kosovo were casting blame — and asking how the group secured armored vehicles and a stash of weapons that included grenade launchers, assault rifles and shells.

The violence, which began early Sunday in a shootout in the northern Kosovar village of Banjska and lasted for hours after the assailants barricaded themselves in a Serbian Orthodox monastery, is the worst since Kosovo unilaterally declared independence in 2008. It throws a wrench into US and European Union efforts to dial back tensions on the EU’s periphery.

Kosovo’s interior minister, Xhelal Svecla, said investigators identified Milan Radoicic — the vice president of Srpska List, the main Serb political party in Kosovo — in video footage of the day-long attack. The government in Pristina demanded that Serbia return attackers who fled over the border after the shootout, potentially including Radoicic.

Ethnic Serbs in Kosovo have been loyal to the government in Belgrade — and dependent on financial support. Radoicic, under US sanctions related to organized crime accusations, has met with senior officials in Serbia, including the president’s son, Danilo Vucic.

Eight people have been arrested since the attack, as US and EU officials urgently called on both sides to return to dialog. NATO didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment at its headquarters in Kosovo.

“This was a trained, organized group, and that means that there are some structures behind them, giving them the training and equipment,” Jeffrey Hovenier, the US ambassador to Kosovo, told reporters after meeting the nation’s president, Vjosa Osmani.

Read more: EU’s Borrell Raps Kosovo and Serbia for Failing to Ease Tensions

Kosovo’s prime minister, Albin Kurti, denounced the attack as an act of terror. Serbia’s Vucic initially called for restraint, while seeking to blame Kurti for “terrorizing” ethnic Serbs, who predominantly live in Kosovo’s north.

–With assistance from Misha Savic.

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